Hollow Men: Six
We discussed it briefly. If somebody was looking for her, they probably knew about my place by now. Which meant we shouldn't go back. As much as I loved hiding under bushes and scrambling across the countryside, the appeal of my own bed and being dry by the wood stove was extremely compelling. Although, there wasn't any choice really. I mean, I could be an asshole and just tell her I was cutting her loose and wish her luck. The warmth of that bed made this moral decision harder than I'd imagined. Plus I was getting creaky in my time, my knees hurt. But there was no choice.
So off into the woods we went. Like a fairy tale, those ancient kinds, not the crappy song and dance CorpLand ones, but the dark German stories where we end up getting eaten by crows or toads. I believe toads would be the worse of the two. Can you imagine? They don't even have proper teeth.
I tried guesstimating how long it would take to get to Mount Babel. And without proper supplies. No chickens now either. Just these bags of honey made by robot bees.
It can be done, the optimistic, chipper me said in my head. You're fucking bonkers, the usual me responded in my head. And herein lies the human juxtaposition. One is cast against the other, in eternal battle. However, I feel like I'd come to a peaceful respite in this process over the years, each side here actively ignored each other. The mistake I'd made when I was younger was to identify with either of these voices. You can listen to them, but if you identify with them you'll end up highly dysfunctional. And up here that means starvation or worse. Whatever worse means in this case, that's up to you to imagine.
"3y3 haz sum Pow3rbrz left," she told me. She pointed to her technologically advanced covering, a thing that was evidently full of endless pockets and storage. I couldn't discern any great store of food on her, at least not in the traditional sense and not without cannibalistic overtones. "OK, let's take a look."
As a matter of full disclosure I produced a meager amount of jerky I always kept in my bag. Also, an ancient military MRE I'd kept just in case for as long as I could remember. "That's all I got, other than the honey."
She began adjusting and unzipping. Unzipping isn't the right word but I don't know what it's called anymore, it was some new fastener I wasn't familiar with. A type of thing between velcro and a zipper, totally seamless, as if rending arbitrary tears in the fabric itself. And she produced a little pile of glowing Powrbarz, a caloric marvel with a factory aftertaste and victorious ad demographics. But it would help.
Mentally I prepared my this is gonna kinda suck speech, then backed off of it. OK. We'll dole this misery out as it happens. Unless she's got a few miracles stashed away in there we're gonna get cold and wet and hungry and maybe lost. Getting lost will be the worst part. The double back, the indecision, the absolute sureness, then a moment later that confidence is crushed by the sinking feeling of wrongness and confusion. If you're lucky you stumble your way out of it, losing time, gaining gray hair.
In my mind I tried to map out the starts and stops of the progression of the journey. The half way mark--this would be the old fire tower and ranger station, abandoned ever since I'd known it, since individual principalities don't have resources for that sort of thing anymore. Although if there's a hunter tracking us, unfortunately this landmark is well known by locals.
But without some landmarks to shoot for we risk getting lost. Over the years the trails that meandered through the woods proliferated from people wanting to avoid the roads. But this personal, or group, trail craft, without any coordination whatsoever, resulted in a maze. Sometimes intentionally as one group decided they wanted to thwart the trade route of another group. Purposeful obfuscation, an array of carved and re-carved blazes that required years of decoding knowledge, cairns that have been destroyed then rebuilt with altered or misleading meaning and contexts, the most experienced woodsmen can be led astray. We could risk the road farther up just for sake of clarity, the chances of coming across much of anything is slim. But at least until we're out of range, it's gotta be trails.
A gravitas came over Dog, having gleaned what we intended probably. An occasional sideways glance. Head lowered. Quietly I promised him a tasty rabbit.
That night I put down evergreen boughs and leaned some of the same against a large tree. We slept in there, although Dog had a hard time settling down. I would've liked to start a fire, but I didn't think we could risk it yet anyway. And we stayed dry and I am very sure nothing even as close as a few feet away would've seen us.
The fact that humans, and Dogs, need to sleep a third of their lives seems like a terrible design decision. I'll bet the church ladies claim it's part of God's plan or something. We cannot guess his infinite wisdom in our desire to nap.
That night I had a strange dream. I'm a person who rarely dreams, this is the only reason I consider this noteworthy.
I was back in the fort, the one we'd built as kids, the one we'd conceived of during our CorpLand resistance. And I looked over to Alan The Spider and instead of the pristine web with Alan in the center, the web was crawling with wasps and they were attacking Alan, viciously, unrelentingly, of course in the way insects do as terrifying little killing machines. And Alan was defending himself at first, since he was larger, but the number of biting stinging grasping wasps... their abdomens twitching and glowing and to me it seemed each displaying a unique pattern like hieroglyphics, eventually the wasps grabbed poor Alan's legs and took him apart piece by piece as he struggled without effect. The last leg was removed, then they cut him in half.
I woke up with a sense of dread and horror, these stayed with me. That feeling, very deep down, in the core of me that something was wrong. More than the usual wrong. That something had unraveled in the universe. As I broke down camp I tried to shake it off. Finally I was able to proceed by focusing on the mundane. If you've ever been overwhelmed with existential fear, go mend the barn. But now it was a question of how many miles will we'd make today.
When we weren't bogged down by rain, mud, maze navigation or the fact that someone wanted to harvest her organs, we subsumed ourselves into the width and breadth of the wilderness, as Dog and I had traditionally done and Naomi appeared to adopt and adapt to. Small talk wasn't necessary, we were animals moving in the wild.
One afternoon as we ascended a particularly difficult trail to the top of an unknown minor mountain, we looked out over the new lands we entered where a storm to our north radiated lightning in angry bursts, and below us we could see a road.
Allowing ourselves a luxury we decided to follow the road a while, until the next trail head, with the caveat we'd move off into the deadly tick infested underbrush at any sight or sound of vehicles. I assumed there'd be a truck or two going down that road eventually.
More likely than not they'd be local trucks with people driving them instead of autotrucks. For years the locals had set traps for autotrucks since they were the emblem of CorpLand and every single one of them represented a lost driving job stuffed with another load of poisonous debt.
So back then the truck drivers, the former truck drivers, got good at setting up autotruck traps--things that tricked the AI into making the wrong decisions. The autotrucks would veer, crash, or otherwise require expensive extraction, coercing, and repair. Soon the routes became too difficult to maintain. The bottom line, as they say, no longer made sense. Although I've got my own history of resistance, I like to imagine folks of that age, waiting in camouflaged hunting perches, remotes in hand, or long wires, or signal whistles, waiting for a big one to come down that road--waiting for some road train half a mile long, full of plastic dollar store shit they'd hawk to the same citizens they'd gotten hooked on high penalty credit cards. And they'd wait for hours, maybe days, and when they heard the autotruck coming they flip a switch, and blow hard on a whistle, and a string of explosive strip spikes were pulled across the road. Then there was the flicker from a mounted projector. The holographic projector was programmed to display the equivalent of a troop of girl scouts standing directly in the path of the road train. The AI of the autotruck assumed that this display was real flesh and blood. Why wouldn't it? The AI struggles to find a way around a biomass of pure innocence.
Years ago I had the pleasure of meeting one of these truck killers and having heard of their methods I had to ask "why road spikes and girl scouts?". If the truck swerves off the road or it hits the fake girl scouts and consequently the spikes, why not just one or the other?
"Because," he said, "the trucks routinely coordinate and update. The moment CorpLand changed the AI to allow it to plow right through a troop of girl scouts--which they did pretty soon of course--then it hits the spikes. We not only took out the autotrucks but we also polluted the morality algorithm of the AI. We forced the AI to feel distress."
The road was easier. We weren't stumbling over rocks or negotiating deep divots of mud. I was out of sorts however, the farther north we went the more I noticed the changes in the topography, the sounds of different birds, the incredible density of the woods. New France makes the Kingdom look pastoral. I knew back there, behind the endless trees, there were farms caved out, but from the vantage of this road, we'd stepped back in time.
Soon though we heard something behind us, faint enough at first that it was discounted. Naomi had long since taken out her buds, so she was now hearing unassisted for maybe the first time in her life. It became louder. We looked at one another. "Hors3i3s!" she said. At least one, but yes, horses.
Looking back I saw the vague shape of something, a carriage perhaps. "Let's get off the road until it passes." Namoi seemed disappointed. We walked, struggling through the weeds and ground cover, off the road down into a ditch. The ground still had the cold morning damp and I hoped we wouldn't have to hide there, squatting, for very long. I imagined an evening of tick removal. Of course it seemed like forever as we waited. The prodding pace of a horse drawn wagon was excruciating.
When it was close enough I could see it was driven by a Neo-Amish. I didn't know they were this far up, but it didn't surprise me. The Neo-Amish didn't call themselves that of course, they called themselves The Keepers. Neo-Amish was what everyone else called them, at least back in the day. After the War the Amish incorporated. They were financially and biologically successful, their population doubling every year. Which isn't shocking when a couple has six or seven kids. And they had a few hundred years of practical self-sufficiency. When the government fell and corporations took over, the Amish, maybe entirely reasonably, realized the only way to survive as they had was to become a corporation to protect their brand. There was competition from a couple of startups, but the Amish's incorporation allowed for effective cease and desist.
This worked well for them, for a while, in that period when there were still a variety of corporations left. But they too eventually fell to a hostile takeover and became another CorpLand subsidiary. Yet not all members of the Amish company were willing to leave this uncontested. A group of them decided it was time to leave. So there was a schism. The Neo-Amish, The Keepers, knew that if they wanted to persist as anything more than a capital gain pie factory, they would need to ditch the pacifism and they'd have to draw a hard line around feudal capitalism. They left their headquarters in Pennsylvania and struck out into the places people had mostly abandoned or forgotten or considered undesirable. That was a much the ghetto of Kansas City as it was Labrador City.
This Neo-Amish stopped his wagon about fifty feet from us, I could see him reach under his seat and pull out an antique AK47, which he set in his lap. Then he spoke, with a big booming voice. "What you doing there in the bushes? I've got a gun here and I'm not forbid from using." The horse shuffled, irritated. "Why don't you come out of the bushes there and we can talk. I'm not real keen on you jumping me from behind."
We paused. Naomi looked a little worried. I nodded at her and told her it was OK, I reassured Dog too. There were a million things more threatening in this world than this Neo-Amish guy, but the last thing I wanted was for him to get skittish with the gun.
We untangled ourselves from the vegetation. The whole time I was replaying everything I'd heard about these guys in my head. Everything in my personal entirety, and not one awful story. I was more inclined to trust him that not I guess. Although this conjured emotion was effectively worth nothing since he was the one with the gun.
"Ah!" he looked relieved when he saw us, "not quite bandits of the road."
I can only imagine what we looked like. An old fuck in rags with a big beard, a hardscrabble dog, and a grungy looking mush.
The horse snorted.
He said "Where you headed?"
"New France," I said.
"Anything to trade?" he asked.
"Honey," I said.